For the first time in television history, Indigenous teenagers have been depicted on a network comedy in their element in a show written and directed by Indigenous filmmakers.
“Reservation Dogs” is the brainchild of Tulsa filmmaker Sterlin Harjo and Oscar winner Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit”). Born during a discussion in the backyard of Waititi’s home in Los Angeles — and over a 15-year friendship — the script is inspired by Harjo (Seminole-Muscogee) growing up in Holdenville, Oklahoma, and Waititi (Māori) in New Zealand. Harjo’s previous work includes the Tulsa-based film “Mekko,” documentaries “Love and Fury” and “Barking Water,” and an episode of the show “The Magicians.”
Harjo — showrunner, writer and director — and crew filmed the pilot over six days in mid-September in Okmulgee. The show, greenlit up to this point, still awaits its official order and announcement from FX.
“They’re just human,” Harjo says about the characters, four teens living in rural Oklahoma who spend their days committing crimes — and fighting them. “They’re allowed to be young and funny. It’s so strange that we’re at this place where that feels new and fresh because all of us (Indigenous people) have lived that way for our whole lives.”
A casting call for actors of all tribal affiliations was sent out in November 2019. Filming was ready to begin in February when COVID-19 brought production to a halt.
Taking extreme precautions, in September this group was among the first in the nation to return to work on set. Harjo was supported by a tight-knit team of local collaborators and a network-size crew approximately 10 times larger than any for his former feature films and documentary projects.
“It’s young and new, and it’s funny at the same time,” says Jennifer Rader (Ojibwe), who lives in Oklahoma and helped cast extras. As an actor, she performed stunts for series lead Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs (Kanien’kehá:ka Mohawk). “This just seems right. We’re not putting on costumes and having to be certain ways — we just get to be people.”
Unit Still Photographer Shane Brown (Cherokee) has worked with Harjo on indie films and documentaries, always centered on Native Oklahoma. The size of those projects contrast with the Hollywood scale of “Reservation Dogs.” Asked about Oklahoma’s film industry in general, Brown says, “I think with the current social climate and the McGirt decision of the Supreme Court (ruling most of Eastern Oklahoma as tribal land) … there’s an opportunity for lots more Native stories from people like Sterlin who are getting the opportunity to reclaim the narrative and adjust what we think of when we think of our history as a nation.”
Royce Sharp, location sound recordist and mixer, echoed this sentiment. “I’m hoping this will be the sort of cultural touchstone that will allow people to be like, ‘Oh damn, that place (Oklahoma) does look cool,’” Sharp says. “I’m glad that it’s going to be represented that way.”
Sharp says COVID-19 precautions included using protective gear, sanitization of personnel and equipment, testing and social distancing. In fact, the shoot came and went without a hitch, meaning that other film and TV productions are looking to Harjo and “Reservation Dogs” as an example of how this job is done in the new normal.
As the pandemic stretches on, with more episodes to be filmed, all one can do is wait. The consensus of those interviewed for this article was that the show, developed in the first all-Indigenous writers’ room in history, will be hilarious. Anyone who knows Harjo can attest to his humor, and all indications point to his show combining reality-driven comedy and realistic Native representation, eschewed of disguise or pretension.
“I look forward to more stories like this,” Rader says. “This is just the beginning, in my opinion, and I’m really glad that I got the opportunity to work on set and be a part of the production.”